35 years and counting: Pioneer Valley Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ is a holiday tradition

Last modified: Thursday, December 26, 2013
The story of a nutcracker doll and a young girl’s journey to a magical land of sweets is a beloved holiday classic. Locally the Pioneer Valley Ballet is celebrating its 35th year of bringing that story — “The Nutcracker” — to life onstage.

This year’s performances will be Friday through Sunday at the Academy of Music in Northampton.

Based on the story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” written by E.T.A. Hoffmann and published in 1816, “The Nutcracker” was first performed in 1892 at the Maryinski Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. Hoffmann probably based his story on the emerging popularity in 19th-century Germany of the “nussknacker,” described in the first dictionary of High German by the Brothers Grimm as “often in form of a misshaped little man, in whose mouth the nut, by means of a lever or screw, is cracked open.”

The ballet has been performed regularly in the United States, by companies big and small, since the late 1960s.

PVB’s first performance of “The Nutcracker Ballet” was in 1978, choreographed by the ballet school’s founder and artistic director, Gail Giere Collins. For the next 22 years, the dances, the costumes, many of which Collins designed, and the sets, which include a magical growing Christmas tree, remained largely unchanged. There was a comfortable sameness to the production, as local audiences came back again and again to enjoy sold-out performances. They could always count on the party guests to enter enthusiastically through the audience during the overture, on the tiny reindeer to prance onstage with Clara and her sleigh in the Land of Sweets, and on the Act II divertissement dancers, “Chinese,” “Spanish,” “Russian,” “Arabian,” to perform variations that remained largely unchanged, even after Collins retired in 2001.

Eventually, though, the company’s six subsequent directors began to bring their own visions of sugarplums to the stage. PVB’s current co-directors, Thomas Vacanti and Maryanne Kodzis have been making changes slowly, since taking the helm in 2005. The two began with Act II, and then worked scene-by-scene to update the rest of the ballet.

“One of my main mottoes is that ballet shouldn’t be a museum piece,” Vacanti said in a recent interview. “We really got in there. There were many parts of ‘The Nutcracker’ that had stayed the same in a traditional way for 25 years.”

By 2007, Vacanti and Kodzis had completely rechoreographed the ballet. The goal, Vacanti says, was to keep the show fresh, while honoring the production’s ties to the original work done by Collins.

“Both Maryanne and I feel very lucky and honored that we’ve been able to carry Gail Collins’ vision of a company in the Pioneer Valley to the 35 year point,” Vacanti said.

Numbers add up

Despite the fact that droves of dancers have come and gone over 35 years, there are some who have been involved with the production through all the changes and transitions. Kodzis, for example, trained with Collins as a child and performed in “The Nutcracker” from 1979 to 1995, dancing the roles of a young party guest, a soldier, a snowflake, a flower, an Arabian dancer, a Marzipan dancer and Kissy Doll. Ed Dvorcak of Belchertown is another “Nutcracker” veteran; he has performed in the party scene every year since 1982.

As others came and went, the numbers of participants added up. Of the 253 dancers taking part in this year’s production, 195 of them are children who will be joining the ranks of the nearly 13,500 children who have performed in the PVB production since 1978.

Having a large cast offers the company a chance to include members of the community in the production. Some 1,400 dancers — children and adults — have played party guests, 560 have played mice and another 560 have performed as soldiers. Snowflakes come in at 904 dancers, while 840 have danced in the “Waltz of the Flowers.” In the divertissements, there have been 90 Spanish, 170 Arabian, 130 Chinese and 140 Marzipan dancers .

Mother Ginger, who appears with her polichinelles in Act II (standing 10 feet tall, thanks to an illusion created with the help of a rolling stand and a giant hoop skirt), is cast with multiple performers each season; some are prominent members of the community. In 2008, for example, then-Northampton Mayor Claire Higgins donned the enormous skirt. Other local luminaries have included award-winning author, animator and TV writer Mo Willems and Bill Dwight, president of the Northampton City Council.

“It is like a guest star role,” Vacanti said.

This year, Gazette reporter Bob Dunn will do the honors at the 4:30 p.m. show on Saturday.

Hiding under the giant hoop skirt of those illustrious guests and the others who have played Mother Ginger, have been over 2,500 elementary-aged dancers performing as polichinelles. They’ve been joined each year by even younger dancers — the more than 2,000 5-to-7-year-olds who have pranced and jingled their way across the stage as reindeer.

At auditions during Vacanti’s first year with the company, he was overwhelmed, he says, by the turnout of youngsters anxious to have their turn on the “Nutcracker” stage.

“I had never seen so many children pass before me in a matter of five hours,” he said.

Those tiny dancers have a special place in Vacanti’s heart, he says, for it is within those ranks that the next generation of talent resides.

“There are so many times that Maryanne and I can look at even a tiny reindeer going across the stage and go, ‘That child is going to be a star.’ ”

One of the ballet’s starring roles, Clara, has been played by 35 girls; the part is cast with a different dancer every year. This time around, she will be danced by 11-year-old Madison Baptiste of South Hadley.

The roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier have been performed for the past several years by guest artists from Carolina Ballet.

Putting it all together

Organization is key to PVB’s “Nutcracker” success. After all these years, the production operates like a “well-oiled machine,” Vacanti said. The company, which is in Easthampton, goes through nine weeks of rehearsals in preparation for the show.

“Our two studios are going full steam, all the time,” Vacanti said. Over the years, he estimates, PVB dancers have clocked more than 12,000 hours in rehearsal.

And there’s more: Costumers have used 2,300 yards of tulle to make 115 tutus; advanced dancers have gone through 8,400 pointe shoes; 350 pounds of fake snow has been used at the end of Act I for the “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” and a dozen or so nutcracker dolls have been given to Clara by her favorite party guest, the mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer. While only three nutcracker heads have been constructed over the years, PVB has gone through 27 mouse heads.

The growing Christmas tree has been upgraded every year, with countless ornaments, while some items, including a grandfather clock and the costumes used in the party scene are from the original production. Other items have only been replaced once or twice: Clara has only had two crowns over the past 35 years, and Mother Ginger has had two giant skirts.

For the 35th anniversary production, updates have been made to the sleigh and the Chinese dragon, but the major change this year, Vacanti says will be new snowflake costumes for the “Waltz of the Snowflakes: that closes Act I.

Vacanti says he and Kodzis are happy with the changes they’ve made, but are constantly looking for new, fresh ideas that will please audiences: So far, PVB’s “Nutcracker” has entertained somewhere in the neighborhood of 140,000 people, he says.

“That the Pioneer Valley can support a production of “Nutcracker” for 35 years is a pretty big deal,” Vacanti said.

But there is no resting on laurels here. Vacanti says he and Kodzis are using this 35th-anniversary production as a springboard for more updates and improvements to “The Nutcracker.”

“I see it as another jumping-off point,” he said. “Its going to be 15 years till we hit 50. What can happen in the next 15 years?”

“The Nutcracker” will be presented Friday at 4 and 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 1 and 4:30 p.m. at the Academy of Music in Northampton. A 35th-anniversary celebration will take place Saturday at 7 p.m. at The R. Michelson Galleries, 132 Main St. in Northampton

Tickets to the ballet cost $20-$40. Tickets for the reception cost $25. To reserve, visit pioneervalleyballet.org or academyofmusictheatre.tix.com.